The DeHavilland Blog

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Nine common-sense lessons from business

While attending the US Chamber’s Business Education Network Summit in October, I heard several people calling for business to share its expertise with education in areas such as change management, data analysis, and scaling successful initiatives. This makes sense: because businesses live or die by how efficiently they operate, one can look to the experiences of successful companies and take away meaningful insights. However, having observed education for a number of years, it occurs to me that education may be in need of some more fundamental lessons from business than the ones discussed at the summit. The following is a good starter list, but is by no means complete.

More hours in equals more work out. If Susan puts in more hours at the office than Bob, odds are that Susan’s going to accomplish more and move up the ladder faster. Yet at a time when our schools are dropping in international rankings, we’re putting in less time than schools in other countries (an average of 180 days, versus the international average of 201). Why is summer break an inviolate right? How many of our students are still farming and need to be off during the summer? Let’s put summer back on the table – heck, like the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, let’s even put Saturday on the table – and put in the time needed to boost learning.

Work during work hours. Why have we not aligned the school day with that of the business world? Shifting the school day to traditional business hours makes sense not only to give students more of the rest they need (research has shown that a lack of sleep has a detrimental effect on school performance), but also to reduce childcare issues for parents. Does anyone think it’s a good idea to have a six-year-old waking up at 5:30am to get to the bus stop by 6:30am every day? Or to have kids get out of school at 3pm when their parents can’t leave work before 5pm? A simple time-shift solves a host of issues for students and their families.

What gets measured, gets done. Salespeople have sales quotas; production managers must produce a certain volume of product without exceeding defect rates. In fact, just about every job has certain measurable aspects that allow people to be evaluated. NCLB may be far from perfect, but the fact that it’s forcing us to be accountable – both for success in reading and math, and even more importantly for the success of all children thanks to the requirement for disaggregated data – is a critical step forward towards better outcomes. Let’s drop the debate over whether we measure and start focusing on what and how we measure.

Listen to your customers. Education’s job is to instill in children the skills and knowledge they’ll need to become productive workers and citizens. The people who receive these children – the universities, businesses, and communities they’ll soon join – are our customers (they also happen to pay the bills). Education can take a page from marketing departments everywhere and determine what kind of “product” these customers want from us: what makes a good college student? What makes a good employee? What makes a good voter? What makes a good neighbor? And let’s put that information front and center as we rethink the education we’re giving our kids.

Give people the tools to do the job. Technology has transformed almost every industry, and it would be difficult to find successful professionals working under the conditions to which we subject our students. Can you imagine four businesspeople sharing a single computer (the desired ratio for students, according to the federal government)? Can you imagine severely restricting the internet access of today’s knowledge workers, or of limiting their computer use to drill-and-kill applications? Almost forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan talked about the disconnect between the immediate and in-depth world our students live in outside the classroom, compared to the world students see inside the classroom, where information is broken out of its context and doled out in metered amounts. It’s hard to appreciate what schools offer when you have total and immediate access to information and technology once you’re gone.

Set clear expectations. In business, expectations are normally clear: do these things, and fulfill your job requirements; do these additional things and you may move up the ladder. In education, it’s a bit more complicated. After reviewing the standards of several states, for example, Achieve Inc. discovered that successful completion of the standards will still not ensure that a student is ready for college. Think about that: you do everything they tell you to do, and then you find that you’re not ready to move up the ladder. It’s unfair to employees or to students, and it needs to be fixed.

Empower your people. Employees work best when they’re doing something they enjoy, at which they feel skilled, and which they believe is relevant. For students, it’s not hard to allow them to explore the things they enjoy and in which they’re talented – self-study, or at least self-selected projects, are relatively simple to implement and assess. In terms of relevance, students can make a difference by doing work that helps a community of their choosing, either local or interest-based. You’ll get the same level of loyalty and engagement out of students as you get from workers who feel capable of making a contribution and then making it.

Pay for talent. Companies know that you have to pay more to attract good talent. While education may be different in some ways – there are plenty of examples of great, passionate teachers who stay in education despite the pay – there are also plenty of examples of great teachers who simply can’t afford to stay in education, and as a result leave for higher-paying jobs in private industry. (This is particularly true in high-need areas like science, math, and technology.) And this doesn’t include the teachers who have to moonlight or work summers in order to supplement their incomes, when that time could be spent educating their students had those teachers been able to make a living wage. It’s time to reward good teachers and pay them a competitive wage.

Give people the skills they need to succeed. Companies institute training programs to impart skills that will help employees do their jobs better. If the job of our kids is to be prepared to join the world as workers and citizens, shouldn’t we be spending more time on the life skills that will mean the difference between success and failure when they’re on their own? More than one million people declare bankruptcy every year, and the national savings rate is close to zero – yet it’s rare to find financial education of any consequence in our schools. We have the distinction of being the world’s first overcommunicated society, according to marketing consultant Al Reis, bombarded by hundreds of marketing messages every day – yet efforts to bring media literacy into our schools have had limited success at best, and lag far behind other industrialized nations. It’s time to start focusing on the skills that will allow our students to live in contemporary society.


These all seem to be common-sense suggestions. I can only hope that the increasing participation of business in education will not only bring advanced lessons, such as those of change management and the like, but also that it will allow education to take a fresh look at its assumptions and feel the freedom to act on them wherever it’s in the best interests of students, teachers, and the stakeholders that benefit from our education system.

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